John Horgan Challenges My Faith

By Sean Carroll | July 10, 2007 9:29 pm

This Saturday, at the invitation of science writer George Johnson, I’ll be participating in “Science Saturday” at If you don’t already know, the idea behind bloggingheads seems to be to bring together bloggers (or writer/pundits, more generally) for one-on-one conversations about subjects of mutual interest. Videos of the conversations are recorded using Quicktime on the participant’s MacBook Pros (or related pieces of inferior technology), and then shared with the world. Some day, of course, every room of every house will have a webcam broadcasting 24 hours a day, and we won’t need such artificial set-ups.

Most of the Science Saturdays have been discussions between George and John Horgan, and the most recent one is no exception. (I believe the redoubtable PZ is teaming up with John on the following episode.) In the closing bit, George advertises my upcoming gig and John responds by suggesting that George challenge me to a bet. John himself has a bet with Michio Kaku, detailed at Long Bets, on whether or not anyone will win a Nobel Prize by 2020 for “work on superstring theory, membrane theory, or some other unified theory describing all the forces of nature.” Horgan is voting “no,” Kaku is voting “yes.” I’m happy to bet on things, but when it comes to predictions I like to take even-money bets on propositions that I personally believe are at least 3-1 favorites. And that certainly doesn’t qualify. In fact, I suspect it’s not even money; nobody will win a Nobel for quantum-gravity type work until there is some experimental prediction that comes true, and the chances are running against that happening in the next decade or two. Beyond that, my powers of prognostication become pretty weak, at least where there’s money concerned.

Note that, earlier on, Horgan talks about inflation, segueing smoothly from “evidence for inflation is purely circumstantial” (true) to “inflation is not really a legitimate theory any more” (completely crazy). Evidence for inflation is indirect, and likely to remain so for a while even if the theory is true (which of course it might not be), but it’s still by far the dominant theoretical paradigm for thinking about the early universe. That’s what happens when your theory both solves pre-existing problems and makes predictions that come true.

I enjoy bloggingheads occasionally, even if one’s selection criteria for “good blogger” or even “good writer” aren’t necessarily the same as those for “engaging video personality.” Video has certain obvious disadvantages when compared to text — it’s much harder to skip quickly to the parts of interest, for example — but also some advantages — you can see the person’s face and peer through their eyes into the inner reaches of their soul. The highlight of the series so far, I think, was a well-publicized meltdown on the part of Ann Althouse. I doubt any such thing will happen between George and me, unless one or the other of us has at least a couple of martinis before our 10 a.m. taping. We’re both pretty laid-back guys by nature, so we need to come up with some good topics to get feisty about. Any suggestions?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Internet, Science and the Media

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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